Friday, August 31, 2007

Barca news and La Liga teams in Europe

Barca are obviously Spain's crisis club, having drawn their first game away, a horrifying fate that has surely -

Oh for God's sake. Dictionary definition of 'leaping to conclusions', anyone?

Barca 5-0 Inter Reserves (Joan Gamper Trophy)

El Mundo Deportivo called Inter 'tourists', which is harsh but true, and who can blame the Italians with an important league fixture to come in the weekend? However, a sold-out Camp Nou - yes, 98,599 people attended a season-opening friendly (so much for the fans feeling let down by the Barca team) - probably would have wished to see a few more of Inter's star players.

The team carried a banner reading 'we will play for you' with a picture of the Sevilla defender onto the pitch. By the way, it was the squad themselves who decided on the tribute of wearing his no.16 shirt and not to celebrate the goals scored that day.
"At first the squad wanted the game to be postponed in order to show our respects to the Puerta, although after talking to the directors we agreed that the best homage was to play for him," Xavi said.

"It was a good way for us to send a message of support and our concolences. Before that none of the players had really fancied playing at all."
I feel quite bad for Santiago Solari, who I've always liked and who received a hostile reception due to his status as a former Real Madrid player. He was one of the few Inter players who tried to make things happen and departed seemingly injured. Hopefully he's alright.

Interesting, there was a lot of support for the beleaguered Deco amongst the crowd, which I'm very pleased by. Other than that, the crowd absolutely loved the immense Yaya Toure, chanting his name after his excellent goal. The others to received the same treatment included Giovani, and Messi (seemingly for just being on the field). But anyway, Yaya is awesome. I'm beginning to suspect he may prove to be our signing of the season.

Of the other new guys, we already know what Abidal can do, but it was nice to see Gaby Milito get 45 minutes of playing time. He obviously needs more time, as there were some early communication issues, but it was good to see headers being won in the Barca area for the first time in ages courtesy of him, and his great sense of positioning was evident.

I've been pretty hard on Thierry Henry for a while, but I have to admit he's starting to win me over. He played 90 minutes of the Gamper game and looked very lively despite some rough defending from Inter. I was worried that his pace had gone with injuries and age, but was pleased to be proven wrong. My one concern is with the number of times Giovani has had the ball on the right flank, looked up to try and find Henry in the center with his cross, and discovered that he had drifted to the left, where Ronaldinho was, and that there was nobody to be found in the center. That has to change. Overall, though, I'm pleased with his progress and am happy to rely on his talents in future competitive matches.

I say this partly because unfortunately, Samuel Eto'o suffered a tear in his right thigh tendon about 2 minutes after he came on and had to be substituted.

How long is he going to be out? At least two months. God. I was afraid all pre-season that something was going to happen, and now it has. Good thing we haven't sold Gudjohnsen or Ezquerro yet. And now the thought of having Henry around is very reassuring, despite his own battle for fitness. Well, at least we'll be putting all that crap about the four forwards to one side, but I feel awful for Eto'o, who was still struggling to be fit from his last major injury. Those types of injuries are so tricky to recover from, too. Look at the nightmare Messi went through with his in 05-06.

The latest is that he will need surgery, which will happen on Saturday morning. Good luck, Sammy!

I hate to say this, but Ronaldinho needs to make just a bit more effort on the pitch, especially with Puyol's absence because of injury, since it's hard to have everybody giving their best when the captain's wandering around, too lazy to chase after a pass. His lack of movement was pretty worrying.

On the other hand, young Giovani is definitely a hard worker. I'm reluctant to admit this, given how much I like Messi, but in some ways Giovani has the greater tactical discipline, because he seldom holds onto the ball just a touch too long like Messi sometimes does. Of course, Messi's dribbling runs are just part of his playing style, just like his tendency to cut into the middle from the right, and it's good that Rijkaard has more tactical options, with Giovani more likely to stay wide. The young Mexican still has a bit to learn in terms of general tactical discipline, and sometimes his decision-making is suspect, but that will come with playing time.

Poor old Cristian Chivu had a torrid time against Giovani and must have been relieved to see the boy depart. Except that his replacement was one Leo Messi, who continued to torment the defender.

Champions League draw

Hey. we're in the group of death (again), isn't that great? To be fair, none of the groups look like walkovers this time around, but God. Of the Spanish teams, Valencia have got a tough job themselves. (By the way, how are Valencia still a pot 2 team after doing so well since the turn of the century?) The draw in full:

Group A: Liverpool, Porto, Marseille, Besiktas
Group B: Chelsea, Valencia, Schalke 04, Rosenborg
Group C: Real Madrid, Werder Bremen, Lazio, Olympiakos
Group D: AC Milan, Benfica, Celtic, Shakhtar Donetsk
Group E: Barcelona, Lyon, VfB Stuttgart, Rangers
Group F: Manchester United, Roma, Sporting Lisbon, Dynamo Kiev
Group G: Internazionale, PSV Eindhoven, CSKA Moscow, Fenerbahce
Group H: Arsenal, Sevilla/AEK Athens, Steaua Bucharest, Slavia Prague

UEFA Cup draw

I have to admit, I don't know much about the clubs the four Spanish participants have been drawn with:

Villarreal CF (ESP) v FC BATE Borisov (BLR)
Club Atlético de Madrid (ESP) v Kayseri Erciyesspor (TUR)
Aris Thessaloniki FC (GRE) v Real Zaragoza (ESP)
Getafe CF (ESP) v FC Twente (NED)

Also of interest to Barca fans, Henrik Larsson's Helsingborgs have been handed a relative tough tie against Heerenveen of the Netherlands.

And speaking of former Barca players, Gerard Lopez has joined Recreativo on a free transfer.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Joan Gamper Trophy (a tribute to Nicolau Casaus and Antonio Puerta)

Barcelona played their traditional season opener friendly against a Inter team missing most of their big stars. I could complain about that, and about the dubious scheduling of this match, but that's a matter for another post. This post is dedicated to the spirit of the evening, which was to honour the lives of former club vice-president Nicolau Casaus, who died earlier in the month, and Sevilla player Antonio Puerta, who died a few days ago.

The Barca players worn Puerta's no.16 Sevilla shirt when they ran out onto the pitch.

Fans in the stands showed their support and condolences with banners.

There was a minute's silence before the match in honour of both Casaus and Puerta.

An emotional Samuel Eto'o before the game.

The Barca starting 11

Ronaldinho dedicates his goal.

Gio does the same.

Eto'o has to be substituted with a muscle injury.

The 11 on the pitch at the end.

Captain Valdes is presented with the trophy.

Pictorial credit: Sina, Marca, El Mundo Deportivo, El Mundo

A rant about certain sections of the Catalan sports press

When I revamped the blog (what do you think, tidier to look at now?), I decided to link to Spanish sports dailies Marca and (Barcelona-based/biased) El Mundo Deportivo, along with the football section of El Pais, the big general daily, but not AS or Sport. A blind monkey can see that AS are in the Barca-baiting business, so there's no sense in a Barcelona-focused blog linking to that, ah, fine publication (I once saw it referred to as 'reputable Spanish daily AS' and nearly died laughing) which doesn't at all make up crazy rumours. But the case of Sport needs explaining. After all, they are fanatical in their support for Barca, and I should be fine with that, right?

Not if they're the kind of fanatical that makes me cringe in embarrassment. Additionally, they print rubbish about Barcelona itself on a daily basis.

Exhibition 1: thinking that they know better than the coaching staff how to bed in a young player. Because they were the ones who did so well bringing Messi into the first team, were they? Attacking the man who did, Frank Rijkaard for supposedly not being brave enough to give a 17 year old significant first team minutes (also known as rushing a player's development by putting undue pressure on them) makes them look really smart in comparison. Not.

Yes, Bojan is wonderful, but how long before the press start to measure him by the same strict standards they use for the big stars and slamming him for every misstep? Having seen how things went with Messi, I give it a month.

To the great football minds at Sport:

There are these other blokes who are already fighting for a starting spot up front. You might have heard of them. In fact, you were inventing that insanely idiotic 'fantastic four' nickname for them just a little while ago, and then whinging about everybody associated with the club advising the press not to use it.

You know, those rubbish unknowns Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto'o and Leo Messi, who have never done anything special for the club ever.

Oh yeah, there's also that guy we've just bought from Arsenal. I hear he's decent.

Exhibition 2: in a related vein, their coverage of Eto'o. Oh yeah, he's the hardest working of all the forwards, but that doesn't matter, he looks so grumpy all the time and we want to see the new guys instead. They've apparently never heard of someone having to play their way back into form after a major injury, and are instead content to behave like a kid in a candy shop, always looking for the shiniest novelty.

Exhibition 3: (which El Mundo Deportivo is also guilty of) upbraiding Rijkaard and putting pressure on him for not playing Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Henry and Messi together, because according to them that's what the fans want. I completely understand that attacking football is part of the club's DNA, and I wouldn't have it any other way, but I also know that in modern football, a team has to be balanced. Out of those four, only two of them defend, and only one (Eto'o) is the kind of guy who's willing to chase an opposition winger all the way to their touchline after losing the ball. (Messi would give chase until just before the penalty area and then stop, assuming that the defenders would take care of it.)

It's simply unrealistic in a competitive game to play all four, especially since two of them would be getting in each other's way all the time. Perhaps it's an option if we're behind in a game and need to score above all else, and screw defending. Rijkaard has after all done it before with Larsson in place of Henry, the problem here being that Henry drifts in from the side and has to play in the center to be effective, while Larsson could handle all three positions on the forward line. In any case, it worked well in games against the likes of Chelsea and Arsenal.

By the way, it's such a crime to waste Eto'o on the wing. I know he said he's okay with playing anywhere (witness his - quite reasonable - performance as essentially a wingback during the latter stages of the Champions League semi with Milan at the Camp Nou), and it's a good use of his work rate, but it's just painful to watch. Both him and Henry absolutely have to play center forward. We've got plenty of wing-forwards who are good at their own job.

Exhibiton 4: having been at least partially responsible for the ridiculous and unrealistic hype over the team themselves, they rush to declare themselves deeply disappointed and let down as soon as the first game is played, conveniently ignoring their own role in making this bunch of players who in truth have yet to gel sound like the second coming of Christ. Dropping 2 points on the first day of the season is a major disaster. It's so horrible that the last time we did so we -

Oh. We won the league and the Champions League, after taking at a month or two to play ourselves into form, during which the hysteria of the press over the points being dropped and the supposed falling out certain big stars had with Frank Rijkaard reached intolerable levels.

...and I haven't even touched on the disgraceful racist cartoon about the Asian tour and their approach to transfer rumours.

In the end, they can write what they want, of course, and they need to sell papers somehow. But that doesn't mean I can't rant about how wrong I think they are.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

La Liga news round-up: RIP Antonio Puerta

"Today has been one of the saddest days in the history of Sevilla FC," Del Nido told the club's official website. "The diamond left-footed player Antonio Puerta has left us, a player that changed our lives now leaves us."

The man who scored this goal in extra time against Schalke to take Sevilla into their first ever European final and the last penalty in the shoot-out which won them their second UEFA Cup in 2 seasons has left us. 22-year-old Antonio Puerta was one of the rising stars of Spanish football, and had passed a club medical just 20 days ago, before he collapsed on the pitch just 30 minutes into the first game of the season.

I'm just shocked. Tim at La Liga Loca has a far more eloquent tribute to the young man. Rest in peace, Antonio. I hope you'll be watching the brilliant team that you were a part of from the big football pitch up in the sky.

Understandably, Sevilla's second round Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens has been postponed and is tentatively set to be played next Monday instead. The La Liga game against Osasuna which was to be played on that date will now be rescheduled. The European Super Cup clash against AC Milan will still go ahead on Friday, but will now be arranged as a tribute to Puerta.

Not that it matters next to the death of a young man, but because of the suspension of the Champions League game, UEFA are currently looking for a solution to the problem this has caused for the draw for the group stages, to be held this week. The rules regarding teams from the same country not meeting in the group stages will complicate the draw, given that we do not yet know whether Sevilla or AEK will progress. One solution which has been investigated is holding the draw twice, once assuming that Sevilla qualify and once in case AEK do in their stead.

Real Madrid have decided to suspend their traditional season opener friendly, the Santiago Bernabeu Trophy which was to be played against Sporting Lisbon out of respect for the memory of Puerta. President Calderon and captain Raul both expressed their condolences on the club website.

The fans of Seville's city rivals Real Betis have behaved very well in this horrible situation. Many joined the Sevilla fans keeping a vigil outside the hospital, and many showed up to pay their respects once the coffin reached the Sanchez Pizjuán stadium. Even mad owner Manuel Ruiz de Lopera behaved well, issuing a graceful statement of sympathy.


The club has expressed its condolences for the tragic death of Puerta via a message on the club website, given by captain Carles Puyol.

The scheduled festivities preceding the Joan Gamper Trophy match against Inter have been cancelled out of respect for the memory of Puerta, and the club will donate 10 percent of all proceeds from the game to the research of cardiovascular diseases.

There will be a minute's silence, in memory of both Puerta and former vice-president Nicolau Casaus, who died earlier this year. The acts of tribute set to be carried out in honour of Casaus before the game will still go ahead.

Club president Joan Laporta, technical director Txiki Begiristain and Puyol will attend the funeral of the Sevilla player on behalf of the club.

In other, less depressing news, defender Jesus Olmo has been allowed to join Racing de Ferrol in the second division for one season, although the club have retained a buy-back option on the player, who has played several times for the first team.

Olmo will join former third-choice goalkeeper Ruben Martinez, who is there on loan.

Happy birthday to Thiago Motta, who turns 25, and Bojan Krkic, who turns 17.

Barca 07-08: Introducing the new faces

Yes, after much procrastinating, I've finally written the long-overdue post welcoming the new signings to the club, including 2 'graduates' from the B team.
"Pressure? Pressure is what you feel when you're about to die or when you might go to jail; when you have no money, no food. But feeling the pressure while playing soccer? I've been playing since I was 17. I've played many games, some bigger than others. That's the way it is."

Name: Thierry 'Titi' Henry (France)
Age: 30
Position: forward
Squad number: 14
Transfer: 24 million euros from Arsenal

What's there to say? It's not as if anybody will be unfamiliar with his characteristics and abilities. Fabulous forward with ego to match, but there are doubts over how much longer he can kept it up due to a series of injuries last season. Has not looked convincing on the wings, but is undoubtedly a classy center forward.

"You can play hard football without a lot of fouls. It seems to me that lately some games turn into a physical battle where technique comes second. As a defender I think that what is most important is to earn respect inside the first 18 metres and commit as few fouls as possible so that your team does not suffer."

Name: Eric Abidal (France)
Age: 28
Position: leftback
Squad number: 22
Transfer: 15 million euros from Lyon

The leftback position has been a bit of a problematic one in recent years for Barca, and Abidal has been signed to remedy that problem. He's strong, quick, and very experienced, able to get into good positions defensively while getting forward a bit in attack.

"I know what it means to play with an advanced defence, but I think if you are well-positioned then the risks are not so great. The key is to be focussed, well-placed and to have good communication among the back four, especially when the team has the ball."

Name: Gabriel 'Gabi' Milito (Argentina)
Age: 26
Position: central defence
Squad number: 12
Transfer: 17 million euros from Zaragoza (rising to 20.5 million depending on trophies)

'The Marshall' as he's known has experience and temperament that belies his relative youth. He was turned down by Real Madrid supposedly on account of a failed medical, but has performed well consistently for Zaragoza ever since signing for them, and indeed captained the side. A lot of Barca fans joke that the club went him for because he looks just like our captain Carles Puyol. There is a bit of a resemblance, even in playing style, but I think where Milito perhaps isn't as good in sheer physicality, he's got a better sense of positioning despite a relative lack of pace. Great header of the ball too, even though he's only 1.79ms tall.

"My target was to play among great players in a big European club and I’ve managed to achieve that today. But the job is not done yet, because I have set myself even bigger objectives. I know I will feel comfortable but I have come here to achieve even bigger things."

Name: Yaya Toure (Ivory Coast)
Age: 24
Position: central midfield
Squad number: 24
Transfer: 9 million euros from Monaco

Toure was signed to fill the club's problematic defensive midfield position, but he's really more of a central midfielder who can tackle and head the ball. So far, he's taken to the holding position well, and shown that he's got skill as well as strength. Whether the position will suit him over the long run remains to be seen.

“I have always compared myself to Messi but he is a football superstar and I am just starting. Of course I’d like to be like him one day.”

Name: Giovani 'Gio' Dos Santos (Mexico)
Age: 18
Position: wing forward
Squad number: 17
Transfer: from Barca B

Actually, Barca fans like to compare Gio to Ronaldinho more. He even looks a bit like the Brazilian, and scarily enough plays a bit like him too. Of course, he's got some way to go, and his decision-making could be better, but he's got pace, strength, and sublime skill to spare, not to mention an audacity and confidence that Messi didn't have at his age.

"I have had two very good years and did not expect any of this," he said. "I am very conscious of that and it is for that reason that I am staying calm and am excited by the way things are going."

Name: Bojan Krkic (Spain)
Age: 17
Position: forward
Squad number: 27
Transfer: from Barca B

As Cesc Fabregas once said, if you're a teenager and you're playing for the Barca first team, you'd have to be the best in the world in that age group. So the fact that a 17 year old is going to be playing for Barca this season tells you something about him. Bojan has amazing goalscoring statistics in every single age group for Barca and at U17 level for Spain. He's simply got the instinct for goal that very good strikers have (personalised in archetypical goal-poacher, Pippo Inzaghi), not to mention skill and pace to burn. The only problem is that he could be a bit taller, but the kid's only 16, so there's hope for that yet.

(All currency in euros.)
In: Henry (24 million, Arsenal), Toure (9 million, Monaco), Abidal (15 million, Lyon), Milito (17 million, Zaragoza), Bojan (free, Barca B), Gio (free, Barca B) = 65 million
Out: Saviola (free, Real), van Bronckhorst (free, Feyenoord), Giuly (3.2 million, Roma), Lopez (2 million, Moscow), Belletti (5.5 million, Chelsea) = 10.7 million
Total outlay: 54.3 million euros

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

La liga news round-up: day 1

It was a weekend that defied predictions as the 3 promoted sides all won at the expense of some of the bigger teams, Real looked better than expected, Sevilla won but it didn't matter, Barca bored and Valencia and Atletico bottled it once again.

Barca 0-0 Racing

As a certain Spanish newspaper put it, 'fantastically boring'. Fair play to Marca, it made me chuckle.

As Sid Lowe said on Football Weekly, it was all rather depressingly familiar to Barca fans: a total lack of width, urgency, agression and worryingly, not much inspiration in attack.

But Zambrotta's right, you know:

“During the pre-season we have been a 'fantastic' team and won everything. Now just because of one match there’s all this fuss."

I also second Xavi's frustration at all this 'fantastic four' rubbish. Certain sections of the press need to remember that football is a team sport.

What has sparked some worry amongst the fans and the press is that while Messi was arguably the best of the trident, he was the one who was subbed off for Henry to come on, instead of Ronaldinho or Eto'o, who would be more likely to have a tantrum about it. Rijkaard insists the substitution was done that way for tactical reasons, but he's definitely under scrutiny for his (apparent lack of) willingness to test the discipline of Ronnie and Sammy by benching them. Messi himself didn't look too happy to be bought off, but in the post-match interview he repeated his usual line of being at the disposal of the coach. To be honest, he's probably the least problematic of the 4 in terms of discipline, but that doesn't mean he should be the victim of the others' egos.

Incidentally, Cesc Fabregas implied in an interview this week that Henry intimidated too many of the young players at Arsenal while he was there. At least that won't be a problem at Barca, where most of the squad are established internationals in their 20s with their own egos and some are stars in their own right.


They're better than I thought they'd be. Garay is as dependable as ever, and with a manager who knows how to marshal limited resources, maybe they won't be in trouble after all.

club news

Poor old Eidur Gudjohnsen. I know I placed him pretty low in the striker hierarchy for the season, but at least I didn't say this:

"Eidur knows the situation," said Beguiristáin. "We now have six players in front of him."

Ouch, Txiki (technical director 'Txiki' Beguiristain), harsh. Especially since 2 of those 6 are at least 10 years his junior.

Next up is the Gamper trophy, which we have to cheer ourselves up for despite the events of the opening round. To be honest, a first round draw away from home is far from a disastrous result, but as I said above, it's just the same old problems which is a bit frustrating for fans. I would certainly rather have the 3 points, but at least this damp squib of a result has damped down the absurd hype.

Real 2-1 Atletico

If it's unfair to judge Atletico on this performance alone, it's probably also unfair to say that Real are world-beaters based on one victory. However, they did look at least dynamic and up for it, and this is a great result for them after the pre-season madness. Good stuff.

As for Atletico, I think they've still got issues in defence, but having said that, they haven't conceded that many in previous seasons either, it's just the timing of the ones they do concede that hurts them.

Valencia 0-3 Villarreal

Being an admirer of the Yellow Submarines, I was very pleased with this result and with their slick performance, but where does one even start with Valencia? Angulo instead of Morientes to partner Villa? And what was with that defence? I didn't think they'd miss Ayala, having signed well to replace him (plus, Albiol's pretty good), but lord, they didn't look organised.

Sometimes, it's difficult for fans to accept the decline of a great player as age takes its toll, and Ruben Baraja is a prime example. I keep thinking that he's still brilliant like he was 3 or 4 seasons ago, and the reality of how far he's fallen was a shock. Sad, but at least Valencia have just signed Manuel Fernandez from Benfica to plug that midfield hole.

Sevilla 4-1 Getafe

A good win, but the gloss has completely been taken off it by the plight of young leftback Antonio Puerta, who remains in very serious condition after collapsing first on the pitch, and then again in the dressing room, where he had to be resuscitated by club doctors. Kind of puts all the fuss about referees and whiny players and unjust results in perspective when a 22-year-old is fighting for his life in hospital, doesn't it? At least the behaviour of Sevilla's cross-town rivals Betis in this matter has been commendable, which is a nice break at least from the childish acrimony that often characterises the rivalry.

All the best wishes to Puerta and his family.

Elsewhere, Zaragoza cost my fantasy team a few points as they were surprisingly beaten 2-1 by new boys Murcia, for whom Pablo Garcia did a good job and record signing Baiano opened his account (although I did get some points because of this game courtesy of Ricardo Oliveira). Depor also cost me a few points in being thrashed 3-0 by Almeria. So much for the fortress Riazor.

(I should explain that I have a 'no Barca or Real players' policy for my fantasy team, which is probably going to cost me points, but has made things more interesting by forcing me to look harder at some of the other sides in the league.)

(Coming up, a post on the new Barca signings.)

Football in New Zealand: Wellington Phoenix 2-2 Melbourne Victory

Well, technically it's Australia, since the newly formed Wellington Phoenix (brilliant crest, by the way) play in the Australian A-League, which kicked off this weekend. The team took the place of league laughing stock New Zealand Knights, who were destroyed by the perfect storm of 1) being incompetent on the pitch, 2) low attendances, and 3) financial problems. It was always going to be difficult promoting football in a nation obsessed with a sport involving differently-shaped ball (sound familiar, American readers?), but frankly, I'm baffled at the failure of the Knights in Auckland, which for the uninitiated is New Zealand's biggest and most diverse city (and also where I happen to live), especially compared to the evident success of the Phoenix, although it is early days. Wellington has 1/3 the population of Auckland, so you'd think they'd struggle for attendance even more, but apparently not.

Because the Phoenix's first ever game, their league opener against the defending champions Melbourne Victory, attracted 14,421 lively fans to the Westpac Stadium (nicknamed the Cake Tin and no doubt familiar to those of you who follow rugby), setting a New Zealand attendance record for a football game. Keep in mind, Wellington has a population of around 400,000, and this game outsold the Wellington vs Tasman Air New Zealand Cup rugby clash which happened earlier in the same stadium by about 3000. Very, very impressive.

But all this would have been for nothing if the Phoenix turned out to be rubbish on the pitch like the Knights. 60 minutes in, they were 2-0 down, Brazilian playmaker Daniel having missed a penalty and things looked grim. But they mounted a stirring two goal comeback with Daniel making up for his error by scoring a header from a corner and New Zealand international Shane Smeltz getting the second, also a header but this time from open play. There were even a few chances to win the game late on, but it wasn't to be, and a point is a fine result from this game.

Match reports:
I was quite frustrated that things didn't work out in Auckland, but it's great to see things going well in Wellington, and the mainstream coverage they're currently enjoying. I'll definitely be following their progress this season as the Phoenix attempt to earn some respect back for New Zealand football.

All the reports said great things about the fans, who drove the team on and made quite a lot of noise with their songs and chants. Hopefully the positive experiences of the first game will keep fans coming back in as the season goes on. Early signs look pretty good. Incidentally, the Phoenix's supporters group are called Yellow Fever (so named because of the club colours) and seem to be a hard-working bunch. Good for them.

Lastly, it was heartening to see a great op-ed in the New Zealand Herald (our national daily) praising the Phoenix and being optimistic about the future of football (or as it's called here, soccer) in this country. It makes a point that I think is very important to get across in countries where football is merely trying to gain acceptance rather than being the national sport:
The great news is that sport lovers in New Zealand have a choice.
It's not that one has to come before the other. Having variety merely means that everyone is happier. I write hundreds of thousands of words about football every month, but that doesn't stop me from cheering for the All Blacks.

(Your regularly scheduled posting about European football will resume shortly with a couple of Barca-related posts.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Barca news: inconveniently timed international dates edition

Excitingly enough, competitive football is back in La Liga. Here's what's been going on ahead of Barca's opener away against Racing Santander.

squad news

The international break came and went with the fans holding their breath for no further injuries, and thankfully that's exactly what happened.

Unfortunately, Gabi Milito will not be available for selection for the first game against Racing Santander, since he has a suspension from last season which will be carried over, thanks to a yellow card in his last game for Zaragoza which carried him to the five-card threshold. It's a pity for Gabi, who received fairly good reviews for his 30-minute cameo in Germany, but it's just as well, as he's only played those 30 minutes of pre-season action, and the minutes he played for Argentina against Norway were at left-back (criminal misuse, surely).

So given the injury to Puyol, Rijkaard's options are Marquez, Thuram and Oleguer. Marquez is 1) not fully up to competitive level, having played only 45 minutes of the pre-season due to his extended holidays (like Milito and Messi) and 2) crucial backup for Yaya Toure in midfield, so you'd think that he'd be unlikely to start. Thuram is carrying a knock from the Bayern game and was excused from playing for France. It looks like he'll be fit in time to start, from what I've been hearing alongside Marquez instead of Oleguer, which is a bit strange. Thuram himself has been in great form in preseason, and he should get his opportunities before Puyol makes his comeback.

Other absentees include Edmilson with his long-term injury, and Gudjohnsen who is still struggling to get fit. Bojan Krkic is busy taking the U17 World Cup by storm, and Gio Dos Santos doesn't get his Spanish citizenship papers until the 28th of August, so he can't play until then. And then there's Deco, who was not quite fit but came through 90 minutes for Portugal fine, so it looks like he might actually start alongside Iniesta. Seems kind of insane given Xavi's excellent preseason form, but I guess psychologically it's good for Deco to see that he hasn't been left out of the team's plans for the season.

Speaking of injuries and Barca's absent captain, Puyol did turn up to get his photo taken for UEFA the other day along with Edmilson. This was not in fact the first time Puyol met the new arrivals, as he has been diligent as ever and hobbled in on his crutches (hopefully having taken the journey by car first, although with him you never know) to come and greet the new guys on the first day of training with the full squad before the tour.

There's some news on his recovery as well, featuring hilarious quotes from the poor club doctors trying to stop Puyol from overworking himself. Even given what they're saying though, I doubt he'll try to make one of his early comebacks, since the knee is a delicate area when it comes to recovery. It's probably better to play it safe for the sake of his career, since he's already increasingly injury-prone.

It looks like Henry will start on the bench in favour of the old school trident, which is a move I'd entirely approve of except for one thing: Eto'o had to fly to Japan for Cameroon's game against the host nation, and he looked really tired during the game. Then he had to fly back, and he hasn't looked fully sharp in preseason anyway, so I'm a bit worried. Having Sammy back to full fitness would beat signing anybody, but it's been a year since he got that horrible injury and I suppose we just have to be patient with these things.

Projected starting line-up: Valdes; Zambrotta, Thuram, Marquez, Abidal; Toure, Deco, Iniesta; Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Messi


I've already paid tribute to the departing Belletti, but I didn't mention that Maxi Lopez has also left, for FC Moscow in a deal worth 2 million dollars. I think his entire transfer was a bit of a mistake by Barca, and the player himself desperately needed more time in the Argentinian league before moving abroad, let alone to a club like Barcelona where he was expected to step for Henrik Larsson. This is a good move for him to develop as a player, as he was never going to do that sitting on the bench, and I'm glad to see him going out on a good note. He'll join 3 other Argentinian players at the Russian club, including rising star Maxi Moralez, who had such a great U20 World Cup just a few months ago to help Argentina bring the title home for a record 6th time.

But back to Mr Lopez. I will always treasure the memory of his one great game for us: 04-05, Champions League round of 16, Barca v Chelsea, scored one and set one up to win the game: the definition of an impact substitute. Thanks, Maxi, and good luck.

It was good to see an article in Sport (and you won't read that phrase very often) defending the possibility of Deco fighting his way back into the starting 11, after all the negative press he's gotten for stating that he'd leave if the club didn't require him anymore. Yes, he sometimes says stupid things, and his behaviour last season hasn't always been exemplary, but I've been over why Deco must not be sold so many times on this blog, I'm starting to sound like a broken record.

More than the positive reasons I've stated before, there's the fact that if he does go, Xavi and Iniesta will have no cover, and that's a recipe for disaster if I've ever seen one. Even with Deco there, I think we could still do with another midfielder to fully cover those 2 positions. (At this point, I kind of miss Mark van Bommel. He was never that great for us, and his playing style is not always pleasant, but he's a true Barca supporter, and at least he added some steel in midfield that we badly missed last season.)

other news

I'd like to note that Ronaldinho, Eto'o, Messi and Henry have now all come out and more or less said that they'd accept being benched for some games, if not happily, then out of respect for the decision-making powers of the coach. Let's see how well this goes. Personally, and I'll elaborate on the reasons for this in a later post, I'm part of the growing group who want to stick by R-E-M up front, at least at first.

Congratulations to Frank Rijkaard for being the second longest serving coach of Barcelona, at least in terms of consecutive years, just after a certain legendary Dutchman by the name of Johan Cruyff. Couldn't happen to a nicer man, and I mean that in terms of both the honour and the baggage that goes with it. Speaking of which, the official web site has a nice interview with him.

The Joan Gamper trophy is going to be as fun-packed as ever. My only concern: did the management not think about the possible consequences of inviting Inter to our annual warm-and-fuzzy fest? The team itself is fine and fits the bill, considering the invitees of recent years (AC Milan, Juventus and Bayern respectively), but a certain Mr Luis Figo is still playing for them. I'm just worried about the friendly match which is supposed to welcome the new arrivals to the squad turning less than friendly. But hey, hopefully I'm just being paranoid, and that unpleasant business is long forgotten.

(My favourite Figo quote - other than the tragicomic irony of 'white babies, salute the champions', of course - is his comment after his first acrimonious return to the Camp Nou in a white shirt. Describing the fun-packed experience of being pelted with all sorts of objects and an atmosphere which was said by Roberto Carlos to be the most intense he had ever played in, he said sarcastically that it was: " of the richest experiences of my life.")

former Barca players section

Congratulations are due to Ludovic Giuly, who won the Italian Super Cup with Roma by beating Inter 1-0 off a De Rossi penalty.

Congratulations are also due to Henrik Larsson's Helsingborg, who got a fairly good result by drawing their UEFA Cup qualifier 1-1 away to Irish club Drogheda United. I don't even need to tell you who scored (again) to put the Swedish club in the lead before their opponents clawed one back, do I? The second leg is being played on the 30th of August.

By the way, there's a great new interview with Henke in the Times. I'm honestly so pleased that he's enjoying the twilight of his career so much and indeed still making a valuable contribution to his team. It will be interesting to see what kind of player his son Jordan makes.

La Liga season preview

This season is unprecedented in terms of spending: 477 million euros in total, breaking the previous record of 2000 by quite some distance. And the transfer window's not even closed yet. Whether all that spending will produce good football and an exciting league remains to be seen. But hey, it's not my favourite league for nothing, and the season ahead looks insanely exciting.

I'm not going to do predictions, because I'm superstitious that way. What I will offer is a question for each of the 20 teams in this season's Primera Liga.

Club: Almería
Coach: Unai Emery
In: Ortiz (Pol. Ejido), Felipe Melo (Racing), López Rekarte (Real Sociedad), Natalio (Castellón), Corona (Zaragoza), Dimas (Barcelona), Negredo (Real Madrid Castilla), Pulido (Getafe), Cobeño (Sevilla), Juanito (Real Sociedad), Diego (Atletico Mineiro), Julio dos Santos (Bayern)
Out: Valerio, De Palmas, Rodri, Larrea, Mena
My question: can the new signings help them stay up? Almeria have been tipped by many to go straight back down, and it's hard to argue with that. The list of signings certainly doesn't inspire confidence.

Club: Athletic Bilbao
Coach: Joaquin Caparrós
In: David López (Osasuna), Muñoz (Osasuna), Aitor Ocio (Sevilla), David Cuéllar (Nàstic), Gorka (Espanyol)
Out: Urzáiz (Ajax), Javi González (Hércules), Iturriaga (Salamanca), Lafuente (Espanyol), Sarriegi (Panathinaikos)
One to watch: midfield wizard Yeste needs to have a good season to help the team stay out of trouble
My question: Will Caparros lift them out of the hole they've been in for the past few seasons? They've lost a few important players, and while the enforcements are useful, they're not going to solve all of Athletic's problems. I see there's been a couple of impressive performers from their youth system (one of the best in Spain) during pre-season, who can hopefully help the club avoid another relegation battle.

Club: Atlético Madrid
European commitments: UEFA Cup via Intertoto Cup
Coach: Javier Aguirre
In: Raúl García (Osasuna), Diego Costa (Sporting Braga), Christian Abbiati (Milan), Luis García (Liverpool), Diego Forlán (Villarreal), Cléber Santana (Santos), Simão (Benfica), Jose Antonio Reyes (Real Madrid)
Out: Fernando Torres (Liverpool), Gabi (Zaragoza), Galletti (Olympiakos), Molinero (Mallorca), Martin Petrov (Manchester City), Pichu (Éibar)
One to watch: after all the hype, this could be Sergio Aguero's time to come good
My question: as with every season when they spend big - is this their year to push on and get into the Champions League? Atletico are the masters of the false dawn, but having managed to keep their admirable coach and spent wisely, they might benefit from the having the spotlight shifted off one person (the dearly departed Torres). Still looks a bit fragile in defence, but a midfield of Raul Garcia, Maniche, Simao and Maxi Rodriguez and a strike force of Aguero and Forlan ought to keep things ticking over nicely.

Club: Barcelona
European commitments: Champions League
Coach: Frank Rijkaard
In: Thierry Henry (Arsenal), Yaya Touré (Monaco), Eric Abidal (Lyon), Gabi Milito (Zaragoza)
Out: Gio van Bronckhorst (Feyenoord), Javier Saviola (Real Madrid), Ludovic Giuly (Roma), Maxi López (FC Moscow), Juliano Belletti (Chelsea)
One to watch: it's hoped that talented canterano Gio Dos Santos will follow the path of Messi circa 04-05 and be gradually eased into the first team.
My question: will dressing room infighting or fitness issues stop us from playing the way we did 2 seasons ago? If not, then we can talk about winning things.

If you have a season in which you're top of the league for 24 of the 38 weeks, score the most, concede the least, lose the least, and finish equal on points with the champions but still fail to win the league, you can draw one of two conclusions. One, that nothing is fundamentally wrong with the team, it was just luck that meant you lost out, and therefore big changes are unnecessary. Alternatively, you can see it as a signal that change is needed if a team who are evidently pretty good still failed to bring the title home. Those in charge at Barca seems to have staked out the middle ground by buying some players to bolster the current system. It remains to be seen how well they'll bed in.

Club: Real Betis
Coach: Héctor Cúper
In: Mark González (Liverpool), Marko Babic (Bayer Leverkusen), Mariano Pavone (Estudiantes), Ricardo (Sporting Lisbon), Lima (Atletico Minerio), Leandro Somoza (Villarreal)
Out: Romero, Robert (PSV), Dani (Cádiz), Contreras (Cádiz), Maldonado (Nástic), Juanlu (Córdoba), Lembo (Danubio), Assuncao (Al Ahli)
One to watch: Young Argentine striker Mariano Pavone earned rave reviews when winning the title with Estudiantes. If he can adapt well, then Betis may have the marksman they need and haven't really had since the departure of Ricardo Oliveira.
My question: Can Cuper turn things around at an internally chaotic club? They've bought quite well, but I'm not sure the defensive problems have been fixed. Good to see that they've finally got a better 'keeper than Doblas though.

Club: Deportivo La Coruna
Coach: Miguel Ángel Lotina
In: Pablo Amo (Recreativo), Rubén Castro (Nàstic), Xisco (Vecindario), Antonio Tomás (Racing), Momo (Racing), Andres Guardado (Atlas), Manu (Sporting de Gijon), Lafita (Zaragoza), Aythami (Las Palmas), Filipe (Rentistas), Jairo (Sporting de Gijon)
Out: Capdevila (Villarreal), Duscher (Racing), Juanma (Tenerife), Arizmendi (Valencia), Estoyanoff (Valladolid), Jorge Andrade (Juventus)
One to watch: if talented Mexican midfielder Andres Guardado can adapt well to the league, then he could help solve Depor's problems going forward
My question: with the departure of the defensive bedrock that allowed them to stay out of trouble despite a dismal scoring record, can Depor maintain their solidarity? If not, they could be in trouble, since the club doesn't really have the funds to buy the attacking players they need to improve.

Club: Espanyol
Coach: Ernesto Valverde
In: Kiko Casilla (Real Madrid Castilla), Valdo (Osasuna), Clemente Rodriguez (Spartak Moscow), Lola (Partizan Belgrade), Lafuente (Athletic)
Out: Velasco, Robusté (Levante), Walter Pandiani (Osasuna), Costa (Gremio), Ito (Córdoba), Gorka (Athletic), Sergio Sánchez (Racing)
One to watch: as ever, moody but highly talented midfielder Ivan De La Pena is key to their success. Hopefully he'll be back from injury soon.
My question: do they have what it takes to push for an UEFA Cup place? As they showed last season, Espanyol under the admirable Valverde are a fine side in the league, and without the distraction of a (very good) UEFA Cup run, they could conceivably aim higher this time around.

Club: Getafe
European commitments: UEFA Cup via Copa Del Rey final
Coach: Michael Laudrup
In: Pallardó (Valencia), Uche (Recreativo), Mario (Recreativo), Pablo Hernández (Cádiz), Daniel "Cata" Díaz (Boca Juniors), Kepa (Sevilla), Oscar Ustari (Independiente), Signorino (Nantes)
Out: Alexis (Valencia), Paredes (Zaragoza), Verpakovskis (Dynamo Kiev), Pulido (Almería), Pachón (Rayo Vallecano), Vivar Dorado (Valladolid), Dani Güiza (Mallorca)
One to watch: they've gone out and bought Argentina's next big thing in terms of goalkeepers to go with the current no.1, so who's going to play? Ustari is truly promising, so hopefully he won't waste away on the bench.
My question: can Laudrup maintain the good work done by Schuster? As ever, the club have lost some key players but bought smartly to compensate. I think Laudrup will do fine, but Getafe will have trouble improving on their finish from last season given a distracting UEFA Cup run.

Club: Levante
Coach: Abel Resino
In: Savio (Real Sociedad), David (Sevilla), Geijo (Xerez), Viqueira (Recreativo), Kujovic (Roda), Cirillo (AEK), Arveladze (AZ Alkmaar), Robusté (Espanyol), Pedro León (Murcia), Javi Fuego (Sporting), Storari (AC Milan)
Out: Zé María, Déhu, Molina, Salva (Málaga), Kapo, N´Diaye (Tenerife), Diego Camacho (Valladolid), Reggi (Castellón), Carmelo (Numancia), Alexis (Valladolid)
One to watch: La Liga veteran Savio has still got the occasional magic, and Levante really do need some spark.
My question: after a season in which they stayed up based largely on defensive solidarity, can they do the same again? Many people are tipping them for relegation, and it's hard to argue that they look like they're going to be in trouble.

Club: Mallorca
Coach: Gregorio Manzano
In: Valero (Castilla), German Lux (River), Webo (Osasuna), Molinero (Atlético Madrid), David Navarro (Valencia), Dani Güiza (Getafe), Gonzalo Castro (Nacional)
Out: Prats, Diego Tristán (Livorno), Maxi López (Barcelona), Jankovic (Palermo), Jordi López (Racing), Delibasic (Real Sociedad)
One to watch: forwards Guiza and Webo will be looking to replace the goals scored by previous top scorer Jankovic.
My question: having lost the aftementioned goalscoring midfielder, will they cope? The early signs look good (and they've still got their other goalscoring midfielder Arango), and Manzano's an old hand at this midtable finish thing by now.

Club: Murcia
Coach: Lucas Alcaraz
In: Íñigo (Éibar), Arzo (Recreativo), De Lucas (Alavés), Goitom (Udinese), Regueiro (Valencia), Carini (Inter), Pablo García (Real Madrid), Mejía (Real Madrid), Curro Torres (Valencia), Fernando Baiano (Celta)
Out: Juanmi, Emerson, Capi, Lledó, Aranda, Carrera, Pablo Ruiz, Antoñito, Pedro León (Levante), Ramón González (Xerez)
One to watch: Fernando Baiano, the undoubtedly talented forward who scored 15 for relegated Celta last season. Having broken their club transfer record to get their man, Murcia will be looking to him for the goals they need to stay up.
My question: They've got some useful players in, and if they bed in well, Murcia could stay up. Will probably be a close call, though.

Club: Osasuna
Coach: Cuco Ziganda
In: Margairaz (Zúrich), Hugo Viana (Valencia), Javier Portillo (Gimnàstic), Walter Pandiani (Espanyol), Carlos Vela (Arsenal), Medina (U. Chile), Dady (Os Belenenses), Jaroslav Plasil (Monaco)
Out: Robert Soldado (Real Madrid), Raúl García (Atlético), Muñoz (Athletic), Valdo (Espanyol), Milosevic, David López (Athletic), Cuéllar (Glasgow Rangers), F. Moreno (Albacete), Webó ( Mallorca), Mikel Arruabarrena (Tenerife)
One to watch: Arsenal's tremendously talented young Mexican Carlos Vela, who's only on loan because he can't get a visa for England. Osasuna should enjoy his services while he's here.
My question: will the losses in midfield and defence hurt the traditionally solid team? Osasuna lost their entire strike force in the transfer window, but they've done very good work in replacing the likes of Milosevic and Soldado, in the case of the latter by swapping one Real Madrid Castilla product for another (Javier Portillo, who is a decent player). Pandiani proved last season that he's still useful, and Dady has done very well in the Portuguese league. But Raul Garcia was very important for them, and I'm not sure they've worked out how to replace him.

Club: Racing Santander
Coach: Marcelino García Toral
In: Jonatan Valle (Málaga), Ayoze (C. de Murcia), Samuel (Sporting), Trevi, Duscher (Deportivo), Jorge López (Valencia), Jordi López (Mallorca), Sergio Sánchez (Espanyol), Brian Sarmiento (Estudiantes de la Plata), 'Ebi' Smolarek (Borussia Dortmund)
Out: Matabuena, Alfaro (retired), Balboa (Real Madrid), Lionel Scaloni (Lazio), Felipe Melo (Almería), Antonio Tomás (Deportivo), Momo (Deportivo), Rubén (Celta), Zigic (Valencia), Vitolo (Celta)
One to watch: Polish forward Smolarek, who just arrived. Racing will be looking to him to replace the goals that the departing Zigic scored.
My question: can they stay out of trouble having sold their best player from last season? Goalscoring young Argentine centerback Ezequial Garay is still there, which is good news, but it's easy to see them struggling without Zigic.

Club: Real Madrid
European commitments: Champions League
Coach: Bernd Schuster
In: Robert Soldado (Osasuna), Balboa (Racing), Metzelder (B. Dortmund), Julio Baptista (Arsenal), Pepe (Porto), Jerzy Dudek (Liverpool), Javier Saviola (Barça), Schorch (Hertha Berlín), Royston Drenthe (Feyenoord), Wesley Sneijder (Ajax), Gabriel Heinze (Manchester United), Arjen Robben (Chelsea)
Out: Roberto Carlos (Fenerbahçe), Beckham (LA Galaxy), Diego López (Villarreal), Miñambres (Hércules), Pavón (Zaragoza), Raúl Bravo (Olympiakos), Pablo García (Murcia), Mejía (Murcia), Ivan Helguera (Valencia), Jose Antonio Reyes (Atlético Madrid), Antonio Cassano (Sampdoria), Emerson (Milan), Cicinho (Roma)
One to watch: is Wesley Sneijder the 'brain' Real have been looking for since Zizou left the building?
My question: will all that spending come together to make a good team? Real were the biggest spenders in Spain and indeed Europe yet again, and as El Pais wrote, 'the most expensive team in the world' and in the history of Spanish football. But having done their spending so late on, whoever is in charge of technical decisions at Real have given Schuster a very untenable situation. He's under a lot of pressure to win games, and win them well, but to be still bedding in new players in the first few games of the season is not the ideal preparation.

(By the way, the four most expensive players in the history of La Liga: Zidane, Figo, Ronaldo and now Robben. All by Real, of course.)

Club: Recreativo
Coach: Victor Munoz
In: Varela (Sporting), Martins (Sporting), Camuñas (Xerez), Beto (Bordeaux), Sorrentino (AEK Athens), Quique Álvarez (Villarreal), Marcos (Villarreal), Cáceres (Villarreal), 'Pampa' Calvo (Boca Juniors), Mariano Barbosa (Villarreal)
Out: Pablo Amo (Deportivo), Uche (Getafe), Mario (Getafe), Viqueira (Levante), Arzo, Santi Cazorla (Villarreal), Guerrero, Merino, Cheli, Laquait
One to watch: Florent Sinama-Pongolle, who proved such a surprise success last season. His partners in attack have all left, though, so it's up to him alone now.
My question: with the amount of change at Recre, will they be afflicted by second-seasonitis? Early signs do not look good. They lost their manager and many of their best performing players, and while some of the replacements look okay, the rest are of dubious quality.

Club: Sevilla
European commitments: Champions League (from qualifiers)
Coach: Juande Ramos
In: Tom De Mul (Ajax), Khalid Boulahrouz (Chelsea), De Sanctis (Udinese), Keita (Lens), Mosquera (Pachuca)
Out: David (Levante), Kepa (Getafe), Aitor Ocio (Athletic), Cobeño (Almería)
One to watch: this may be Jesus Navas' breakthrough season if he can overcome his psychological problems. The dictionary definition of 'brilliant but brittle'.
My question: will last season's amazing feats go up in smoke because of that dreaded beast, internal unrest? The way things have gone in the last few weeks with the separate sagas involving Chevanton, Dani Alves and coach Ramos himself have not boded well, but hopefully they can put all that behind them and perform well again, both in the league and in the Champions League.

In the transfer window, the club have bought well and cheaply yet again. Here's an amazing statistic, courtesy of El Pais: the Sevilla first 11 that defeated Real in the Bernabeu to win the Spanish Super Cup cost 26 million euros in total. Now that's a great achievement.

Club: Valencia
European commitments: Champions League (from qualifiers)
Coach: Quique Sánchez Flores
In: Arizmendi (Deportivo), Mata (Real Madrid Castilla), Alexis (Getafe), Timo Hildebrand (Stuttgart), Sunny (Pol. Ejido), Ivan Helguera (Real Madrid), Zigic (Racing), Manuel Fernandez (Benfica)
Out: Pallardó (Getafe), Jorge López (Racing), Roberto Ayala (Zaragoza), Tavano (Livorno), Regueiro (Murcia), Hugo Viana (Osasuna), Butelle (Valladolid), David Navarro (Mallorca), Aarón (Xerez)
One to watch: Youngsters Mata and Sunny had pretty good tournaments at the U20 World Cup and will be looking to get some minutes this season.
My question: will this be their season? Valencia have a sensible coach, an enviably large squad which is to their credit filled with Spanish players and finally now seemingly no more potential for internal unrest. They are difficult to beat and can play some great stuff. So what's stopping them from challenging for the title and for the Champions League? If they can avoid injury problems and more internal unrest, the sky's the limit.

Club: Valladolid
Coach: José Luis Mendilíbar
In: Sisi (Valencia), Butelle (Valencia), Alberto, Vivar Dorado (Getafe), Estoyanoff (Deportivo), Diego Camacho (Levante), Ogbeche (Alavés), Sesma (Cádiz), Cifuentes (Real Sociedad), Alexis (Levante)
Out: Chema, De la Cuesta, Gonzalo Vicente, Mario Suárez, Toché, Manchev
My question: will their imperious procession to the Segunda division title translate into the kind of form that will ensure them survival? I think they'll do well enough to stay up, but it is early days yet.

Club: Villarreal
European commitments: UEFA Cup
Coach: Manuel Pellegrini
In: Vidangossy (Unión), Cáceres, Capdevila (Deportivo), Diego López (Real Madrid), Rio Mavuba (Bordeaux), Santi Cazorla (Recreativo), Tomane (Sporting), JD Tomasson (Stuttgart), Giuseppi Rossi (Manchester United), Angel Lopez (Celta)
Out: Alessandro Tacchinardi, Quique Álvarez (Recreativo), Arruabarrena (AEK Athens), Arzo (Murcia), Diego Forlán (Atlético), Peña (Celta), Marcos (Recreativo), Cáceres (Recreativo), López Vallejo (Zaragoza), José Enrique (Newcastle), Leandro Somoza (Betis), Mariano Barbosa (Recreativo)
One to watch: American-Italian Rossi has the potential to be a great striker in La Liga, and if he settles well Villarreal will look very smart indeed having made so much money off Forlan and bought Rossi for what will then look like a very small sum (around 10 million euros).
My question: can they continue their great form from the end of last season given all the personnel changes? (And will the presence of a sulking Juan Roman Riquelme at training disrupt team spirit?) What seemed like the spine of the team left, and despite reinforcing well in some respects I still worry that they're short of a few defenders, especially given the serious injury suffered by Gonzalo Rodriguez yet again. I'm sure Pellegrini will mold the newcomers into a unit soon enough, but with an UEFA Cup run injuries at the back could be a problem.

Club: Zaragoza
European commitments: UEFA Cup
Coach: Víctor Fernández
In: Gabi (Atlético), Paredes (Getafe), Ricardo Oliveira (Milan), Generelo (Nàstic), Roberto Ayala (Villarreal), Pavón (Real Madrid), Matuzalem (Shakhtar Donetsk), López Vallejo (Villarreal)
Out: Gerard Piqué (Manchester United), César Jiménez (retired), Corona (Zaragoza), Aranzábal, Ewerthon (Stuttgart), Gabi Milito (Barcelona), Lafita (Deportivo), Longás (Tenerife)
One to watch: Matuzalem is a tremendous talent and will add even more South American flair into a team already packed with it.
My question: will an UEFA Cup run affect their league form? Zaragoza have enforced very well indeed, especially on the somewhat murky and yet ingenious move that bought Roberto Ayala as a more than adequate replacement for Gabi Milito. Losing Gerard Pique is a shame, but one can understand him wanting to play for Manchester United. Bringing Ricardo Oliveira in on loan now looks very smart indeed given the dubious state of fitness of last season's top scorer Diego Milito. Oliveira may have been useless in Serie A, but he's a goal machine in La Liga.

Here's Sid Lowe's (always entertaining) season preview, and here's Tim of La Liga Loca's for his blog and for Football365. Phew. It's certainly good to have proper football back in La Liga again.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Farewell to Juliano Belletti

In a move that surprised many people, Barcelona rightback Juliano Belletti has been sold to Chelsea for 5.5 million euros.

On the Barca end of things, out of the group of players who were said to be expendable (Motta, Ezquerro and Gudjohnsen being the other names on it), Belletti was the one who would have proved most useful had he decided to stay. But he had very publicly stated his displeasure at losing his starting place to Zambrotta last season, so perhaps a change was for the best.

This is also quite a surprising move by Chelsea, at least from where I'm standing. Mourinho's distrust of attacking fullbacks is well known, and Belletti is nothing if not a defensively dubious attacking fullback.

He'll probably be better than the likes of Glen Johnson, leaving Michael Essien free to return to his midfield duties, but it's hard to see how Belletti fits into Mourinho's big picture. And it's not like he hasn't seen Belletti's defensive problems first hand: the unfortunate rightback scored an own goal in the Camp Nou against Chelsea in 04-05 and his marauding runs forward in the return leg left him stranded upfield, leaving Damien Duff and Eidur Gudjohnsen free to give Chelsea an early 3-0 lead. So my question is: did Mourinho sign him? Or was this more the idea of the sporting director or Peter Kenyon? It will be interesting to see how he gets on in the Premier League.

But back to Barca. Juliano Belletti joined Barcelona as part of the 04-05 revolution that revitalized the team, going on to win La Liga twice. He played more than 100 games and contributed heavily with his effective attacking runs forward to the team's success. I always liked him for that attacking verve, even though as I've already pointed out he is defensively fragile.

During his time at Barca, Belletti also participated in the campaign that saw Barca win the Champions League for only the second time. I think if you ask Barca fans for their most vivid Belletti memory, it would have to be the goal that gave us victory over Arsenal in the final, which was his only goal for the club.

That goal was a personal release for Belletti, who had been relegated to the bench in favour of Oleguer for most of the games during that season and had only come on as a substitute in the final. The look on his face captured on the wonderful photo above sheds some light on what it meant for him personally. For Barcelona, it meant the culmination of a rebuilding process which had finally lifted the club back on top of Europe, 14 long years after the last time.

So the 'hero of Paris' departs. Good luck, Juliano. And thank you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

some updates ahead of Argentina's game against Norway

I talked about the squad list when it was announced. There's been a few changes since then.

Unfortunately, Carrizo has had to pull out due to complications over his transfer to Lazio. He hasn't been able to play because his attempt to get an Italian passport has failed, and isn't match fit. His future is uncertain right now, which is quite sad for someone so clearly talented. Excitingly, though, this does hand a first senior start to Getafe's young Oscar Ustari (good friend of Leo Messi) who I'm very fond of.

I've heard good things about how Sosa is settling in at Bayern, but apparently he's injured, so we won't see any of him. Also doubtful is Daniel 'Cata' Diaz of Getafe, who is apparently carrying a knock.

Also on the fitness front, I'm not terribly sure about the Serie A guys, other than that Zanetti at least seems to be alright, but of those who play in Spain, Garay has played a couple of pre-season games, as has Coloccini. The same goes for Maxi and Saviola. As for Lucho, the Portuguese league has already started, so he should be match fit.

On the other hand, Diego Milito hasn't really played for Zaragoza in this pre-season, so he's probably some way from match fitness. His brother Gabi has only played 30 minutes for Barca, so there are doubts over him too, although he's suspended for the first La Liga game anyway, so the match practise might be good for him. Club team mate Messi has played only about 15 minutes more than Milito, but it has to be said that he looks pretty close to match fitness, and could probably stand to play at least half of the game.

Young striker Lavezzi played well for Napoli in the Coppa Italia last week, and given the state of fitness (or lack of) of the rest of the forward line, may get some minutes.

This is apparently going to be the starting line-up:

Ustari; Zanetti, Garay, Burdisso, G Milito; Lucho, Mascherano, Maxi; Messi; D Milito and Lavezzi

Looks good to me, except for the fitness concerns cited above and the fact that poor Gabi Milito will have to fill in at left-back due to Pinola being injured and Heinze being stuck.

Update: according to a new Basile interview, the 11 above are going to be playing 4-3-3, with Messi operating in his no.10 role from the wing (and higher up the field than your average midfield playmaker) like Ronaldinho does at Barca, except of course his domain is the right instead of the left. So I guess that leaves Lavezzi for the left wing. I'm quite intrigued by the prospect of this experiment in formations, actually.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

a few conclusions from the Spanish Super Cup

Sevilla 6-3 Real (agg.)

First leg: Sevilla 1 (Fabiano, p) : 0 Real
Second leg: Real 3 (Drenthe, Cannavaro, Ramos) : 5 (Renato (2), Kanoute (3)) Sevilla

As El Pais observed, this was the difference between 'a team and a project'. Alongside the Valencia I sometimes saw last season (not so sure how they're doing this season yet), Sevilla are the most complete team in Spain, and that is entirely admirable. (There's a reason there are so many Sevilla players in my La Liga fantasy team.)

I really hope those rumours about Spurs coming in for Juando Ramos come to nothing. (This is a really terrible time to sack a manager from the London club's point of view, anyway.) As they have demonstrated in their Champions League qualifier against AEK Athens, they're enough of a team that even losing a great player like Dani Alves won't be too much of a problem. Remember the people who predicted doom and gloom when Reyes was sold to Arsenal for 10 million pounds, not to mention Sergio Ramos (27 million euros) and Julio Baptista (24 million euros) to Real. Ramos has done such good work at Sevilla, and I'd like to see how they do with him at the helm in the Champions League proper.

So Sevilla begin the season as they ended it: by winning a trophy at the Bernabeu. Fully deserved, and congratulations to them. With apologies to Milan, I hope they go on to successfully defend their European Super Cup title.

Real Madrid
"...then today people talked about my decision concerning Guti. I simply don't understand why I shouldn't be allowed to do what I've been working on all week."
News flash, Bernd: this is Real Madrid. People will never stop talking about every single one of your decisions, from whether or not you play Guti to whether you shout enough in training. (Also, your attempt to include the decisions of the referee in the list of reasons for your defeat was pitiful. This could become tiresome really fast.)

For a Madridista perspective, see Gonzalo's take. As I said in the comments there, I do find it hard to fault Schuster for the lack of coherence and tactical clarity in the team at this moment in time, because whoever's in charge of transfers at Real has left him in a very difficult position. They're now only 5 days from the start of the league, and a big first game against city rivals Atletico Madrid at that, and they still haven't finished bringing players in.

How is Schuster supposed to plan his tactics with a squad missing crucial members? Sneijder, who is supposed to be the attacking midfielder the coach has been asking for since he signed on, only arrived a few days ago from an entirely different league. Expecting him to fit into the team straight away is lunacy. Just to take an example closer to home for me, after playing 5 halves and one full friendly with Barca, I still think Henry hasn't quite fully clicked into our tactical system. That's 300 more minutes of game time with the team than Sneijder (and Drenthe) have had.

But given all of that, who do you think will be blamed for any trip ups that do occur? Sadly, I think it would probably be Schuster. I don't expect to be defending him on a regular basis throughout the season, as I do find some of his behaviour annoying, but it's easy to appreciate just how difficult his position is at this point.